Social justice: a reading, and a talk and a play.

It’s my ninth week 5 – in other words, I’ll be graduating in 5 weeks. Denver weather appears to be reflecting my mood at the moment: warm and sunny one minute, sleety, gloomy snow the next (it’s literally snowed every Tuesday for the past two weeks, and is schedule to do so this week too! Denver’s schizophrenic climate at its best…). It’s hard not to have mixed feelings with school-related deadlines advancing at a swift clip, “real life” zooming into view, and a departure which will involve leaving Denver friends, but catching up with Bahamas ones, soon approaching.

Luckily I don’t have all that much time to dwell on these things. An essay on the validity of the theory of the “convergence” of States under globalization, a memo strategising the political campaign of a fictional Latin American presidential candidate, and my ongoing paper on Bahamian trade and development have taken up much of my time.

The fact that most of this blog will not be taken up by discussing class-related happenings might well be directly proportional to how close I am to graduation. While I’m enjoying my classes, and continue to appreciate the opportunity to add some crucial factoids to my intellectual repertoire, I’m also increasingly hankering for engagement with “real world” issues in a more direct way. This might explain why, during what remained of my week, I’ve attended what turned out to be several “social justice” themed events.

The first was a talk by award-winning Guardian.co.uk and The Nation journalist, Gary Younge. As a fan of Younge’s columns, I was very pleased to see him invited to give the University Library’s Author’s Lecture. This turned out to be in large part a reading from the Chicago-based, British writer’s upcoming book, The Speech, to be released later this year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. The talk illuminated the complex political and social process that undergirded the restoration of King’s legacy, from one which saw him with less than a 30 per cent approval rating around the time of his death, to someone who was considered more popular than Mother Theresa, to some of the less commonly discussed elements of that speech (among them, that realizing equality is not just about removing legal discrimination, but also the much more complex work of creating the conditions for economic and social equality). Younge also took up the question of to what extent we can say King’s “dream” has been realized today, framing this question in the context of the so-called “post-racial” Obama presidency, which the political Right likes to use to suggest racism no longer exists in the U.S., and the widening of economic and social disparities between Blacks and Whites since the 2008 financial crisis.

The writer coupled this with a rundown of shocking statistics that go to the heart of this question, and serve remind us that “to mistake symbol for substance is to trade equal opportunities for photo opportunities.” Among them, the fact that the life expectancy of a black male in Washington, D.C, is less than that of a man in the Gaza Strip and the reality that more black men were disenfranchised as a result of having a felony conviction than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race. (In fact, subsequent research reveals 13% of black men have lost the right to vote due to felony convictions. And many of these felony convictions are of course related to minor drug offences which commonsense reform of drug laws would eliminate.)

Via his contribution to “wresting the complex meaning” of the Speech (to quote from a King biographer, Michael Dyson) from those who would seek to distort it, and placing it in the context of today’s racial realities, Younge brought into focus the need to continue to think hard about what democracy, freedom and equality really mean in contemporary America.

The second justice-related event I attended was a talk by Korbel School Social Science Foundation board member, Krishen Mehta. Mehta, a former accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers (a company who has as one of its primary services consulting with MNCs to help them avoid paying taxes), has turned tax justice advocate in his retirement. In his talk at Korbel, he argued with genuine passion for the need to address the legal and commercial incentives for multi-national corporations to evade taxes, in many cases removing profits that should be taxed in the developing world, contributing to investment therein, instead sending them to jurisdictions like Singapore, Switzerland, and, yes, The Bahamas, to avoid paying the full extent of this tax. The result is that funds – $20 trillion of them – which should be going into public coffers the world over are instead swelling the pockets of corporations, leaving developing and developed world countries starved of much needed public investment-funding revenue.

I was heartened to hear Mehta focus on the need for the US and the UK in particular to step up to the plate on this front, as I’ve felt strongly for some time now that countries like The Bahamas are being unfairly demonized by the OECD and G8, as a result continuing to face a disproportionate amount of the global pressure that is mounting to stymie tax evasion. This seems to be solely a result of US and UK governments not wanting to take politically unpopular steps in their own jurisdictions to force MNCs to pay their fair share of tax, or to shut down so-called “tax havens” that operate within their borders, or with their specific consent (Delaware, in the case of the US, the Channel Islands, the Cayman Islands, and many others, in the UK’s case). Part of the social justice discussion, then, should be a realization that offshore finance is a part of the economy in The Bahamas that, if dissolved, would mean a real decline in welfare in a country with limited choices for economic diversification. Rather than simply bullying The Bahamas in the short term into spending months of its parliamentary time debating financial laws that will ultimately result in it shooting itself in the foot economically with untold economic consequences, the OECD should set an example and act within its own borders first.

My final foray into social justice came in the form of a play, “Semillas de Colorado: Stories from the Struggle” (“Semillas” meaning “Seeds” in Spanish, suggesting the planting of an idea…), which was an inspiring tribute to activists and victims of injustice meted out at the hands of the State and misguided bigots in Colorado’s history. The play, performed at the Su Teatro theatre in Denver’s Santa Fe Art District, dramatized the courage and principled stance of conscientious objector, Denverite Ben Salmon, who was sentenced to 25 years-to-death, beaten, and made to undergo force-feedings as a result of his objection to participating in World War I on the grounds of his Catholic religion. It told the disturbing but all too familiar story of a group of Blacks (and supportive Whites) who were attacked and beaten for taking a swim in Washington Park’s Smith Lake in 1932 in defiance of Denver’s segregation laws – at a spot so idyllic today we might barely be able to imagine such hate-filled violence could have occurred there. The play also drew upon the suffering of the 273 people who were detained and deported after an immigration raid in Greeley in 2006 – part of a larger raid that saw 1,300 taken into custody on a single day – which left hundreds of children to come home to find one or more of their parents missing, and the bravery of Gay men and woman who stood up against cruel victimization by Denver police and overturned a discriminatory ordinance in 1964, among others.

The play is part theatre, part documentary: at the end of some of the story segments, someone who was in reality a part of the scene described, or a relative (in the case of Ben Salmon), came out and provided a first-hand insight into the incident, or simply thanked the troupe and the audience for turning their attention to the event at hand. “Semillas” is the brainchild of Jim Walsh, a Denver school teacher who felt formulaic teaching of America’s history aimed at the passing of standardized tests failed to give students a real understanding of their past. He rebelled against the system (not without retaliation), dumping assigned textbooks, and eschewed exams. Students instead found themselves acting out historical scenes in his class, often of “alternative history” a la Howard Zinn. This soon extended into creating the Romero Theatre Troupe, which has become a means of theatrical celebration of activism and awareness-raising – or “Social Justice Through Organic Theatre”, as it states on its website. Among the actors in the troupe are some of the students who were introduced to issues of social justice through Walsh’s classes, joined by dozens of others of various ethnicities and ages, ranging from toddlers to retirees. “There’s 45 very nervous people back here tonight, some of whom have never set foot on a stage before,” Walsh said by way of introduction from the front of the stage before the play began, quipping “I think I just heard someone vomit!.” “Semillas” was an unconventional, heart-warming and enlightening performance from a diverse collective of Denverites to commemorate some of the State’s untold heroes and forgotten victims, in the process sowing the seeds of future fights for social justice in the State.

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Posted on April 27, 2013, in Global Finance Trade and Economic Integration, Josef Korbel School of International Studies and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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